Monday, September 19, 2011

I Just Felt Like Running

Michigan 31, Eastern Michigan 3

It's nice to be at the point where we can reasonably complain about things after a 28-point victory in which Denard Robinson racked up a whopping 198 yards, with Vincent Smith also chipping in over a hundred yards on the ground as well and the defense giving up its fewest point since the 2007 Notre Dame bonanza of hilarity. All of these sound good, and yes, there seems to be an underlying aura of improvement bubbling underneath the narrative of 2011 Michigan football. And yet, the first quarter (and even the second), may or may not be signs of things to come, kind of like that feeling you get in your stomach after eating some particularly uppity Indian food: it looks and tastes good now but there might be some, how do you say, "complications" down the road. So yeah, this game was like a plate of spicy lamb vindaloo and NO THIS WON'T TURN OUT POORLY NO SIR.

But, for now, we have the luxury of just enjoying this win despite all its flaws and the impending indigestion death by run defense that it suggests.

The Offense

It's pretty clear that when Borges said he was out of his "comfort zone" for the first time (re: using Denard's skills) he was being completely honest and not spouting Denard fluff (not that there's anything wrong with Denard fluff). There's something to be said for offensive rhythm, something that doesn't really show up in the stat sheet but is pretty crucial to an offense's ability to move the ball on a consistent basis, and unfortunately that rhythm seems to still be predicated entirely on DENARD GO GO GO. This is a work in progress, and I'm still not even close to getting ready to eliminate the "Al Borges is not dumb" tag from these parts, but man. Is it just me or does our offense look like the one that that one friend--the friend that everybody has--always runs against you in Madden/ know the friend. He's usually the guy who says things like "watch these 4 verts bro" before throwing a bomb on first, second, and third down (he also goes for it on fourth down regardless of field position). Another hallmark of this friend's offensive strategy is a running game that involves picking a team with a fast quarterback and running outside every time that he doesn't throw deep (which is every pass). Obviously this is a little hyperbolic (Gorgeous Al would never say "bro"), but it seems that there hasn't been much of an effort to ease Denard into the passing game. As cliched as it is, give the guy a slant or two, more screens (standard RB screens, TE screens, WR screens that aren't tunnel screens, etc.), a 5-yard curl here and there. Regardless of how persistent Borges--and the shadowy influence of Hoke's general football philosophy on that persistence--is with respect to running non-spread type plays, some basic things need to change in order to get Denard anywhere close to the type of quarterback the offensive staff wants him to be.

The interception on drive numero uno is Exhibit A: Michigan came out with 5 runs in a row, followed by an incompletion and then the pick itself on 4th&5. I'd like to see Michigan come out passing right away against SDSU and Minnesota, and Northwestern (before things start to get real, beginning with the MSU game). We dont need Denard to be Peyton Manning, we just need him to make standard passes that guys like Gallon can add chunks of YAC from time to time to help him out. Throwing so many passes downfield is pretty much the perfect way to assure that Denard has no rhythm at all. To quote David Foster Wallace, it's "so stupid it practically drools." Then again, to check myself here, sometimes you make a read and go with what's there, which very well might lead to what we're seeing on offense: you don't not throw to Junior Hemingway deep when he's got one-on-one coverage just because you're worried about throwing deep too many times. I don't know...I just want to see some more intermediate routes and/or "easy" passes for Denard in the near future. Thankfully, this Rex Grossman-esque "let's go deep all the time guys" philosophy might not hurt us too often this year, as the Big Ten is generally terrible and the only teams with decent defensive backs on our schedule are Nebraska, OSU, and I guess Illinois (Terry Hawthorne).

On the positive side, yes, Denard did have a Denardian stat line, rushing-wise, by the end of the day. Part of me thinks that maybe Denard takes that 52-yarder all the way in 2010, but maybe I'm just finding things to worry about. The zone read did look quite good, although I will say that I find the fact that teams even consider crashing in on the tailback and not Denard a little bit puzzling. Notre Dame did this and so did EMU, but will other teams do the same? If Smith and Toussaint can assert themselves as above average options then the zone read will finally enter the fray in earnest. If that happens then look out. As prolific as the offense was last year, Denard never mastered the execution of the zone read (which you would've thought would be a linchpin of our offense under RR). An offense in which Denard can do this on a somewhat regular basis should terrify opposing defensive coordinators.

The offensive line still looks like it just realized that the final exam they have in a week is in Mandarin Chinese and not the esoteric Urdu dialect they've been studying all semester. It's a work in progress. We're still extremely left-handed, which is okay if you have Jake Long destroying all challengers like Bonesaw before his bout with The Amazing Spider-Man. Lewan's good but he's not quite there yet. However, despite the OL being pretty underwhelming (as was sort of expected), Vincent Smith had a great day, going for 118 yards on a mere nine carries. Smith went for 27, 5, and 14 yards on three carries in the drive to open the second half (the first two out of the gun). The good news is that he looks like he's regained the jitterbug burst that he flashed in 2009. The bad news? He's still tiny. As long as Toussaint can stay healthy--a pretty huge if--his size shouldn't be an issue, as he won't have to carry the ball more than 10-12 times a game. If he can pair with Toussaint for about 25-30 carries a game, with Denard getting anywhere between 15 and 25 depending upon the flow/circumstances (i.e., score, time left, etc.) of a given game, I'll be pretty happy. It looks like Shaw and Hopkins won't be getting too many carries this season (again, assuming Toussaint doesn't go down).

I'm not saying start Smith, but Borges needs to get him the ball, especially as a receiver. Smith is obviously not Matt Forte in build, but Forte could be a model for how we could be using Smith.

The Defense

It is what it is. At this point in time, I'm not looking for the Michigan defense to reach some absolute value of goodness; rather, I'd like to see Michigan get better week by week. It is but a simple request.

The first quarter was ugly, but I don't need to tell you that. Contain was not kept at all, and thinking about checking Taylor Martinez or Nathan Scheelhaase is not a pleasant thing at all. EMU turned out to be exactly what they had been in their previous two games against FCS competition: a team that can definitely move the ball on the ground but not through the air. EMU passed a total of six times in the game (six!), which shines an uncomfortably bright light on the run defense. If you're playing Eastern Michigan, and that team has very little ability or intention to pass the ball, you'd think that you could pin your ears back and stop the run...NOPE!

The Michigan defense gave up 207 yards on the day at a clip of 4.5 per carry. That average is not horrific, I guess, especially since EMU was trying its best to shorten the game at all costs by running on almost every play. In the end, though, Michigan held up when it mattered, and giving up three points is nothing to scoff at (especially after the UMASS game last year). Jibreel Black is coming into his own, and he made a nice play to force a fumble on the first drive just as EMU was approaching the red zone. On the very next drive, Michigan stonewalled Eastern on the one, a situation in which Michigan probably gives up a touchdown last year. If I was Ron English, I would've gone for it too.

Eastern got into the red zone again, but Michigan did well to force a field goal. Michigan's defense bent but didn't break, which is commendable. The numbers themselves are disappointing but only if you're expecting Michigan to be a top 40-50ish defense.

Pass rush in this game is irrelevant for obvious reasons, but we'll definitely get a better feel for whether or not the front four can do much of anything when Ryan Lindley and Sand Diego State. Craig Roh made an appearance, getting a sack in the third quarter where he flashed the agility and quicks that we saw throughout much of his freshman year. The D as a whole looked pretty excited for him. While I can't explain his underwhelming start to the season, it's good to see him get on the board. We are not very good at rushing the passing, and without Roh pitching in it gets even worse.

Other positives? Kovacs is Kovacs. The solo open field tackle is not something we've seen a whole lot of the past few years. Additionally, Thomas Gordon looks like the other half of our first--dare I say it--competent pair of safeties since 2007's tandem of Brandent Englemon and Jamar Adams. As high as my hopes were for Carvin Johnson, Thomas Gordon looks like he could be a good one for us, and that's without even mentioning that spectacular one-handed interception. It's nice to have safeties that kind of know what they're doing. Another exciting player is Brandin Hawthorne, who led the team in tackles on Saturday with 10 total (one TFL). Like Jake Ryan, he's still a work in progress, but it looks like we might have a player at the WLB position, an addition which could end up being as huge as the Ezeh-Demens switch of 2010. His TFL on Eastern's drive to start the fourth was a quintessential read and react. To be fair, he was unblocked, but he knifed through the wash and tackled the ball carrier for a loss when he just as easily done something else, like miss the tackle, overrun the play, or get distracted by the guy walking down the steps in Section 20 with a box of popcorn. I don't think the novelty of "making tackles" will ever wear off.

Special Teams


We made a field goal.

Kick and punt returns are pretty mediocre right now. I love Vincent Smith, but I'm not sure why he's been given kickoff return duties when there are a number of more explosive players on the roster. Holding on to the ball is certainly the prime objective here, but Smith back there is basically like Greg Mathews returning punts. This probably won't happen, but I wouldn't mind seeing Raymon Taylor get a shot back there at some point.

Wile had a pretty poor day on punts, booting three for an average of 35.0 yards and a long of 41. Hagerup can't get back into the fold soon enough.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Interesting to see Raymon Taylor out there as a nickelback. I'm not sure if that lasts going forward (could be a Desmond Morgan "throw him in there and see what he does" scenario), but he brings some major speed to the secondary. 
  • Jake Ryan really got owned a few times in the run game. He is the consummate freshman at this point, and it's best if everybody, including myself, slows down the hype train. He's good for an impressive play or two a game and a bunch of bad ones. 
  • Is it just me or has Mike Martin also been really quiet this year? I know, he's getting a lot of double teams, but still...all's quiet on the Western Michigan front (4). 
  • Nice to see Koger aka Hypeman86 get involved in the passing game with the touchdown. Koger could he a huge asset in getting Denard comfortable throwing the ball early on in games, and I think Borges would be remiss to not take advantage of his [Koger's] talents. 
  • Other cameos: Frank Clark and Blake Countess. We're not really in a position to be redshirting everybody, but hopefully these two don't see their redshirt burned for no reason. 
  • EMU was only 4/12 on third downs, so that's an improvement. 
  • Overall, Michigan did what they had to do to get through this one. Denard running the ball in the 4th quarter is not a great idea, and hopefully Borges realizes that going forward. Twenty six carries for Denard is WAY too many, especially against Eastern. On the plus side, Denard hasn't been dinged up at all this year, which is either due to the extra TOUGHNESS in the clam chowder or complete luck. He really took some licks in this one that made me cringe. This is the part of the schedule where we can afford to save him for MSU and beyond.

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